In the Journals

"Keywords" in Current Anthropology

The latest issue of Current Anthropology includes an interesting new section called “Keywords.” Like the book by Raymond Williams after which it is named, the new section contains essays discussing terms which are both “significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation” and “indicative words in certain forms of thought,” (Willams 1976 cited in Aldenderfer 2011).  The new keywords, however, are specifically terms which, as CA editor Mark Aldenderfer writes, “have become commonplace in anthropology,” yet remain contested in the discipline (2011).

You can read the abstracts for the first four keywords — “neoliberal agency,” “consumption,” “identity,” and “flow” — below.  A particularly nice thing about these essays is that they are presented in the usual CA format, with the article proper followed by a series of comments and a reply from the author.  Let’s hope that we can look forward to more keywords in future issues.

David Graeber, “Consumption”

Beginning in the 1980s, anthropologists began to be bombarded with endless—and often strangely moralistic—exhortations to acknowledge the importance of something referred to as “consumption.” The exhortations were effective; for the past 2 decades, the term has become a staple of theoretical discourse. Rarely, however, do anthropologists examine it: asking themselves why it is that almost all forms of human self-expression or enjoyment are now being seen as analogous to eating food. This essay seeks to investigate how this came about, beginning with medieval European theories of desire and culminating in the argument that the notion of consumption ultimately resolves certain conceptual problems in possessive individualism.

Lauren Leve, “Identity”

“Identity” is a key term for anthropological analysis today. This paper explores the challenge posed by modernist Buddhists in Nepal who participated in identity politics while grounding their claims to identity-based rights in belonging to a religious community defined by the doctrine that there is no such thing as a “self” in the conventional sense. Examining the sharp proliferation of identity-based discourses and claims in post-1990 Nepal in light of broader structural transformations associated with the globalization of neoliberal governance strategies and against the rise of a popular vipassana meditation movement, I suggest that the rise of ethnoreligious politics in Nepal at that time reflects the presence of a global “identity machine”—an apparatus that establishes not only the categories of identity recognized and claimed in democratic states but also, indeed, their very ontological foundations in liberal conceptions of self, citizenship, and social relations. Nepali Buddhists who claim religious rights while also engaging in practices that challenge the very idea of identity are at once participating in the ideological and institutional conditions of neoliberal modernity and also reworking these in unexpected ways. This paradox calls on anthropologists to study the processes that produce and extend particular ways of seeing and organizing the world rather than inadvertently naturalizing them.

Ilana Gershon, “Neoliberal Agency” [OA version]

This article addresses the challenges a neoliberal conception of agency poses to anthropologists. I first discuss the kind of self that a neoliberal agency presupposes, in particular a self that is a flexible bundle of skills that reflexively manages oneself as though the self was a business. I then explore the dilemmas this neoliberal agency poses to different scholarly imaginations. I conclude by proposing that a neoliberal agency creates relationships that are morally lacking and overlooks differences in scale, deficiencies that an anthropological imagination would be able to critique effectively.

Stuart Alexander Rockefeller, “Flow”

“Flow” is a term that is frequently employed in anthropological discussions of globalization, although little attention has been paid to the word or the presuppositions and history it carries with it. The rise of this keyword has been surprisingly inconspicuous. In this article, I show some of the ways “flow” is employed in anthropological and other social science writing today, tracing its development through the works of Deleuze and Guattari and ultimately to the writings of the philosopher Henri Bergson. I then raise two important concerns regarding the use of “flow” to talk about globalization. First, I argue that as it is employed today, the term lends itself all too easily to a metaphysical dualism that can only impede our understanding of the dynamic nature of locality and global interconnections. Second, I argue that the term encodes what I call a “managerial perspective” that sees agency only in large-scale social patterns and institutions and that is largely unable to recognize individual agency or the significance of small-scale organization and phenomena.

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